Today’s statement of concern comes from Larry Cleveland, RD, LMT:
“I have nothing against sponsorship of health organizations if said sponsors align with a message of wellness. There are many companies out there (within the food industry and outside of the food industry) who provide healthful foods that nourish.
I am, however, deeply concerned and embarrassed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ public endorsement of brands who profit from food products that are minimally nutritious and have largely contributed to our current public health problems.
An article (“Recognizing and Addressing Conflicts of Interest”) in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2006 written by J. Craig Busey, JD, general counsel of the Academy states: “At bottom, of course, a conﬂict of interest is an ethical concern.” The Academy’s current sponsors pose an ethical concern, therefore, because junk food has nothing to do with protecting and advancing public health, which is what a health organization is supposed to do.
Consider this description of Academy Partner PepsiCo on the Academy’s website:
“PepsiCo is one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies, with 2006 annual revenues of more than $35 billion. The company operates in nearly 200 countries, and employs more than 168,000 people worldwide. PepsiCo’s commitment to sustainable growth, defined as Performance with Purpose, is focused on generating healthy financial returns while giving back to communities the company serves. This includes meeting consumer needs for a spectrum of convenient foods and beverages, replenishing the environment through water, energy and packaging initiatives, and supporting its employees through a diverse and inclusive environment that recruits and retains world-class talent.”
Note the absence of any language that actually has to do with health. Most of PepsiCo’s “convenient foods and beverages” (various chips, sugary oatmeal, soda, etc.), are highly processed and minimally nutritious.
The fact that a health organization would take money from companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s (this year, three state-level dietetic association conferences had the fast food chain as a sponsor, and in one case had them provide lunch) makes a statement about its willingness to put its members’ credentials at risk.
Simply disclosing potential conflicts of interest is not enough, either. These sponsorships have consequences. The public begins to doubt our ability to offer objective information when, at our conference, The Corn Refiners Association and Frito-Lay are touted as reputable sources of continuing education.
I feel that, as a result of these partnerships, the Academy has failed its members. Consider the fact that only four percent of Academy members voted in recent elections. I assert this is a statement of apathy; too many of us feel like our voices are not heard (especially when so many of us have expressed our concerns about these partnerships for years, to no avail).
We have to remember that the Academy’s current sponsors are not in the business of public health. Why are we aligning ourselves with a company whose top priority is to get a can of soda in everyone’s hands? These companies are great at implementing “cause marketing” to soften their image, or trumpeting the fact that they “provide choice,” all while lobbying against any move that aims to protect the public from their relentless advertising.
To think that we can impact their brand by sitting with these companies at the table is a fantasy. We have been “collaborating” with these companies for years and Americans only continue to get sicker. All we are doing is co-signing their irresponsible behavior and looking spineless in the process. At this very moment, a sensory chemist is at work on designing the perfect combination of fat, salt, and sugar for stimulating specific centers of the brain. The Academy has failed to address this inhuman behavior by Big Food.
Does the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics truly want to be in bed with these kinds of companies? Why not, at the very least, educate the public on what is actually going on with our food supply and help to set the food policy that is sorely needed in this country (that, by the way, was what an MD at one of Texas’ largest hospital groups told me when I asked, in a public forum, what RDs could do about junk food companies who undermine our efforts as health professionals).
Our attempts at “making friends” with – and accepting money from – these food companies backfires because it ultimately takes away opportunities to call out their troublesome behaviors.
These partnerships also force the Academy to adopt meaningless recommendations like “all foods can fit,” which doesn’t accomplish much in terms of protecting public health. Perhaps candy and soda “can fit,” but they should fit minimally, if at all.
We don’t do the American public any favors by making it seem that soda and fast food are innocuous. In my view, not taking a firm stand on what nutritious food is has undermined this intention. We have failed and we will continue to fail unless we get out of bed with these companies who are wooing us. We don’t need to be educated by organizations with which there is even a scent of a conflict of interest.
My concern is the Academy’s unwillingness to stand for health of the community for future generations. Not rocking the boat has a cost. When I brought this up at the Annual Spring meeting of three area associations, most of the room applauded. I imagine those who didn’t were afraid to. Be not afraid. Let’s take a much-needed critical look at our organization and begin to work together to sort this most critical issue out for the sake of our children.”